Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Fishing in the Desert

By Angela Lush

Scientists have gone fishing in desert boreholes and found some unique ecosystems and evolutionary adaptations.

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When you think of deserts you don't normally think of fishing, but that's exactly what Dr Steve Cooper and his collaborators are doing in the deserts of Western Australia. What they've caught could help to answer some of the biggest questions in evolutionary biology.

Dr Cooper, Principal Researcher with the South Australian Museum's Evolutionary Biology Unit, is fishing in calcretes – calcium carbonate or limestone rock formations full of crevices and caves that hold groundwater. The calcrete systems are not far below the surface and are quite shallow — some up to only ten metres deep — but they can range in area from 3km² to over 200 km². The only way to access these calcretes is through wells or boreholes that have been drilled by landholders or miners.

''A colleague from the WA Museum, Bill Humphreys, had a hunch that there might be animals living in these calcrete systems. With stygobiologist Stefan Eberhard, he dropped plankton nets down boreholes in the middle of nowhere and pulled out an amazing collection of blind animals," says Dr Cooper.

The discovery changed the common perception that these calcretes were lifeless. The team is now studying the unique ecosystems to identify the species present and look at how they evolved and adapted to their environment.

To catch the animals, a plankton net is dropped from a fishing pole. The net acts...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

Source South Australian Museum